Posted By The Stash

Land: a very precious thing for many people. Too precious perhaps. Think of how many wars have been fought over land and borders. Not just borders of countries, or cities, but disputes over fences and lot lines. The history of both Canada and the United States is largely a history of Europeans who came here in search of land, and who battled and ultimately dispossessed the First Nations whose belief that the land belonged to the Great Spirit and needed no title sadly proved part of their undoing.

The Torah provides a powerful antidote to human arrogance, greed, and the impulse to acquire land at all costs with its many agricultural laws. Our parasha describes the shnat yovel, the Jubilee Year, the 50th year that culminated the cycle of 49 years, with 7 sabbatical years interspersed among them. Like the sabbatical year, the Jubilee required that the land lie fallow, and that no crops be planted or harvested. But the Jubilee had a special feature: each piece of land would return to its original owner if it had been sold and all Hebrew slaves would be set free.

This certainly prompts thoughts of economic disaster. After all, the Jubilee year followed a sabbatical year (the 49th of the cycle) and therefore there would be no planting or harvesting for two years. The text acknowledges this by noting that the produce of the 48th year would be sufficient for the next three. Fine words certainly, and Divine too, but the average farmer would find them difficult to believe literally. Nor did they have to, for the Sages permitted land to be divided into smaller portions and each portion to be planted in a separate year so that farmers’ entire landholdings were never completely unplanted or harvested. Yet, certainly crop yields did fall in sabbatical years and even more so in the Jubilee.

It is, thus, the freeing of the slaves that marks the most obvious difference between the sabbatical and Jubilee years. Ibn Ezra powerfully observes that captive birds sing less lustily than free ones, because animals yearn to be free. So, he continues, do people. People naturally wish to be free and a nation that knew slavery cannot practice it eternally. The essence of the commandments of Judaism is freedom through law, thus Jewish law must outlaw permanent slavery. In an era when slavery was the normative practice, the idea of freeing slaves was certainly unique. But the Torah’s affirmation that people innately want independence and hate slavery echoes through the millennia. As we enjoy our respite from the week on Shabbat, we recall that the essence of freedom is the power to choose what you will do with your free time.

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